Defenders of activist U.S. “leadership” in the world have increasingly resorted to fatalistic arguments to justify an American strategy of primacy that most Americans don’t support. According to advocates of U.S. hegemony, Americans simply have no choice, and they have to accept that this will be the U.S. role in perpetuity.
“The U.S. is the only superpower with a global reach,” former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier this month. “And some of them may not like it, but it is the destiny of the U.S. to bear the burden of being the world’s policeman.” Writing in Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan has much the same message for Americans. You are doomed to police the world forever because there is no viable alternative. Kagan writes:
The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility, that they have to think beyond the protection of the homeland. They need to understand that the purpose of NATO and other alliances is to defend not against direct threats to U.S. interests but against a breakdown of the order that best serves those interests. They need to be told honestly that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but
preferable to the alternative.
This is a familiar theme for both Kagan and Rasmussen. Rasmussen was saying exactly the same thing five years ago when he insisted that the U.S. must be the world’s policeman. Kagan has been banging the same drum about the need for U.S. hegemony for more than two decades.
Twenty-five years ago, Kagan and Bill Kristol declared, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” We now know that to be untrue. Hegemony is not a defense against such a breakdown. It has been a contributing factor. It is no longer 1996 at the height of the so-called “unipolar moment,” but Kagan’s prescription has not changed at all.
The hegemonists’ arguments have only become weaker over time, as we have seen just how destabilizing and destructive their preferred policies are. It is difficult to take advocates of order-maintenance seriously when they have been on the side of trampling on that order almost every chance they get. The chief proponents of “maintaining a world order” have consistently supported taking actions that undermine international peace and security. It is not an accident that most of the loudest hegemonists have been supporters of every misbegotten war of the last 20 years, including and especially the invasion of Iraq.
These wars have not been incidental to the project of pursuing and maintaining hegemony. They are the predictable results of this strategy. Support for aggressive and illegal wars is woven into their program of “policing” the world, because they take for granted that the U.S. is free to wreak havoc on other countries in the name of upholding the “order.” The rules of the order don’t apply to its enforcer, and they wouldn’t want them to. As we know from bitter experience, that is not how international order and peace will be preserved. On the contrary, it represents one of the greatest threats to both.
Kagan’s view of U.S. wars during this period deserves closer consideration, because it reflects his warped view of the costs of U.S.-led “ordering.” He blithely refers to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as “relatively low-cost,” which would come as news to the hundreds of thousands of people killed and injured and the millions displaced by the fighting. Even if Kagan is referring only to American losses, the arrogance and indifference are nonetheless staggering. Wars that never should have been fought are always too costly, and wars that should have ended decades ago inevitably cost more than they had to. These are wars of choice, and we can choose a strategy that makes them less likely.
These wars drag on interminably, and, more to the point, they are unsuccessful. But for Kagan this is just the cost of doing business, or “the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats,” as he puts it. How invading Iraq or occupying Afghanistan for a generation preserves peace elsewhere is a mystery that Kagan chooses not to explain. The idea that unending wars are being fought for the preservation of peace doesn’t just sound Orwellian. It is practically quoting Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.
Kagan slips in the line about “acting to forestall threats” at the end to smuggle in support for preventive warfare when no one is looking, since “forestalling” threats implies taking aggressive and therefore illegal military action against other countries. Kagan’s vision for American world ordering isn’t just that of deterring attacks by other powers, but of eliminating regimes before they have done anything that would warrant military action. Kagan’s world policeman punishes “crimes” before they are committed. The dangers and potential abuses inherent in such an arrangement are obvious to anyone that gives it a second thought, but Kagan never does that.
The U.S. is not destined to bear such a disproportionate share of the burden for international security, nor is it trapped. The U.S. assumed the burden in the wake of WWII when all other major powers were devastated and bankrupt, but the world today is nothing like that. There are at least a dozen other allied and partner countries that could and should take greater responsibility for security in their regions of the world, but they won’t pick up the slack as long as they assume that the U.S. will do it for them. The U.S. would do far more for international order if it restrained itself and assumed a more modest set of responsibilities. That would allow the country to shed some of its outdated obligations, devote more resources at home to make the U.S. more competitive, and husband our strength rather than frittering it away in constant warfare.
U.S. hegemony was an artifact of a very peculiar period in world history that will never come again, and as we move out of that period we need to adapt our foreign policy strategy accordingly. Kagan and Rasmussen are products of that period and cling desperately to it because it is what they know. They are trying to preserve a U.S. role in the world that no longer makes any sense for the world as it is.
Kagan poses an odd challenge to critics of hegemony: “It is precisely because the country is still capable of pursuing a world-order strategy that critics need to explain why it should not.” The simplest answer is that having the ability to do something doesn’t mean that doing it is wise or just or necessary. The U.S. has pursued what he calls a “world-order strategy” for at least the last 30 years, and it has contributed greatly to massive suffering and disorder in multiple countries. Even if the U.S. can pursue such a strategy for a while, it does so at the expense of its own domestic needs and the welfare of our citizens.
U.S. foreign policy exists to serve the interests and needs of the American people first and foremost. When it becomes as divorced from those interests and needs as the “world-order strategy,” it is time for a change. America does not have to act like some cursed Flying Dutchman, doomed to patrol the world for all time. We can choose how we want to engage with the rest of the world, and we do not have to be locked into an antiquated pursuit of dominance.
Americans have a viable alternative to endless war and policing the world, and it begins with recognizing that having great power does not require constantly meddling overseas. If the U.S. adopts a strategy of restraint, it will engage with the world constructively while conserving its strength, and it will no longer be involved in fomenting and worsening conflicts on the other side of the world. Americans write our own foreign policy destiny, and it is time that we imagined something better for ourselves.